There are those who would argue that Nashville — outpost for turbo-tonk, slick ballads and hillbilly artists with stock portfolios — has lost its soul. After all, once upon a time, wild-eyed boys, high on home brew and diet pills, ran amok and plowed the occasional luxury sedan into restaurants just off Music Row. And the women had big hair, bigger times, truckstop/trailer park chic, and no problem singing songs about the real sexual politic.
In today’s kinder, gentler Nashville — where the biggest scandal is that Faith Hill, the platinum blonde edition of Marie Osmond, is an item with “Indian Outlaw” Tim McGraw — today’s country artists seem about as dangerous as a bowl of day-old oatmeal.
Thankfully, Nashville: The Other Side of the Alley has the real pulse of the insurrectos who run from the Music Row machinery. As Tim Carroll lurches into the swaggering “Open Flame”, it’s obvious this project is designed to expose the vital, vibrant side of country being committed by a passel of not-so-videogenic pickers moved by the spirits of Lefty, Ernest, Hank, Cash, vintage Waylon and company.
From the loose-limbed, twangly, steel-driven sound of “Your Red Wagon”, Paul Burch & His Honky Tonk Orchestra’s homage to swing; to R.B. Morris’ gently revelatory, harmonica-bathed “Roy”, a story of ambitions squashed and potential that could still be mined; to the raging, corner-on-two-wheels honky-tonk of Jason & the Scorchers’ “One Last Question” — this is an album that dares to keep the pilot light of rough-edged ruralism afire. It’s not safe, and that’s the best news.
Most of these acts — with the exception of the Scorchers and former Georgia Satellite Dan Baird — have never seen the light of a major-label home, so their instincts haven’t been twisted toward something that will neither fit country radio formats nor maintain the full-tilt passion that fuels real country music. At its peak, country music is a run-at-the-wall-and-keep-going proposition.
When Kristi Rose fairly hiccups, “Coffee’s brewed and na-tchure’s calling,” you get the feeling that the bobbing beat and reeling fiddles aren’t about making it to the bathroom in time. Yet there she is, all sparkling and toe-tapping to an arrangement that’d make Patsy proud — and her vocal dynamics suggest that booming isn’t the only way show off bedroomy aplomb.
Rose isn’t alone in her sensual reaction to life. Duane Jarvis’ Burritos-meets-Hank tale of barroom connection “Cocktail Napkin” is about as overt as you can get without clubbing a girl over the head. Yet it also packs an industrial-strength dose of reality, as his cracked voice acknowledges that his best chance of hooking up is only in his mind. Ditto Greg Garing’s lusciously vintage country “Safe Within Your Arms” that is the stuff swooning is made of.
There’s Lonesome Bob’s plain achin’ two-part vocals on “The Plans We Made”, as dark and twisted a tale of love and capital punishment as anything Oliver Stone could dream up. Equally riveting is Sonny George & the Tennessee Sons’ Johnny Cash evocation “Hillbilly Train”, which recalls the glory days of thumpin’ upright bass and a seek-and-destroy backbeat that doesn’t bludgeon.
Indeed, all the artists represented here are wearing their own kind of hat, which reminds you how diverse this music can be. Wisely, The Other Side chooses to survey rather than specialize. There’s old-timey acoustic redemption and weak flesh in Hayseed’s “God-Shaped Hole”, just as there’s acidic overtones to Baird’s slow-burnin’ indictment of success, “Lonely At the Top”.
Somewhere in the midst of it all, there’s vindication for a once-proud town that understood raw emotions, high times and twangy music was something to be proud of. It ain’t pretty, but it is real life — and that’s the strongest statement country music can hope to make.